Five Whiskey Books
Worth Your While
Once I reached the point in my whiskey journey where I actually realized I was on a journey, I began to look for books to read. Many of the books on the shelf seemed to be colorful brochures for a long list of individual whiskeys, with only limited information about the process of making them, tasting them, or the history of whiskey. It occurred to me these books might date fast, given the speed at which the whiskey boom continues to boom. Also the internet is rife with frequently updated whiskey reviews already, so why buy a book with already dated information?
I recommend all five of the books listed below. I’ll share a bit about why. And I’ll address each book in the order I would recommend reading them—not the order I happened to read them, incidentally. But with hindsight a convenient and productive order presents itself.
Of course, your own individual interest should determine which of these you read and in what order. Are you most interested in history? In practical tasting information? In philosophy? Each book has its emphases.
Finally, I’ll also offer suggested whiskey pairings for each book. Because what else are you going to do while reading about whiskey?
This was my first whiskey book. It immediately became my whiskey Bible. Greene’s personable writing style comes across like she’s sitting right there talking with you. She provides an excellent, concise overview of the world of whiskey, its history and how it’s made. Her advice emphasizes the practical: how to understand a label, how to taste whiskey, how to pair it with food or use it in cocktails. The whiskey world can be an intimidating one to enter into, and Greene intentionally demystifies that world with a sense of humor, practical information, and easy to follow how-to suggestions. Though there are illustrations throughout and an attention to the overall layout, the emphasis is on information rather than visual splash. I return to Greene’s book regularly. If for some Orwellian reason I was allowed only one whiskey book, this might be it.
I suggest Whisk(e)y Distilled as a book to start with because of its effortless accessibility, its clarity, and its excellent combination of range and concision.
Fred Minnick is arguably among the leading and most influential whiskey journalists in America today. He’s written several books on the subject and appears tireless in his ability to attend whiskey events across the country year-round, while also maintaining a robust online presence. An announcement from Minnick that a whiskey has been voted “best of the year” at one whiskey festival or another can turn a common affordable bottle into a rare expensive unicorn, literally overnight—Henry McKenna Single Barrel being a recent case in point. Despite that controversial influence, Minnick’s commitment to the whiskey community is undeniable. Bourbon is an exceptionally visual account of America’s bourbon-making history, with a detailed and eclectic layout seemingly designed to sustain the attention of the attention-challenged. Each page is a variation on a handful of layout-motifs involving photos, insets, sidebars, background textures, and other graphic elements. As for the content itself, in broad but clear and informative strokes Minnick charts exactly what the full title of his book says, in an almost classical three-act dramatic structure: the Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of an American Whiskey. This is not a how-to book. It’s a history book designed to keep any dusty notion of “history book” from settling on its lively pages. It may be working on visual overdrive. But it’s a good tour.
Just as luck favors the prepared, so too does insight favor the informed. I suggest Bourbon as a book to follow Whisk(e)y Distilled because an understanding of the broad history of American whiskey adds an informative layer to one’s experience of tasting it—whiskey being, as it has been said, “history in a bottle.”
Rather than taking Minnick’s design-heavy, broad-overview approach to American whiskey history, Susan Cheever hones in on the intricate connections between American whiskey and American politics and explores them in rich detail. Subjects include the Mayflower voyage, the American Revolution, the real Johnny Appleseed, Prohibition, Senator McCarthy’s political witch hunts, and the Kennedy assassination, among other significant chapters in the American story. In each instance, Cheever illuminates the role alcohol played in how and why events unfolded as they did. As the child of an alcoholic and a recovered alcoholic herself, Cheever’s exploration is informed by the dark side of drinking. Yet her book’s aim is not at all to advocate against alcohol. Rather, she shares with us her fascination with the evident fact that American culture, politics, and history are quite literally soaked in booze. This surprising, entertaining, thought-provoking, and exceptionally well-researched book dovetails its historical accounts with a lively cultural investigation into the complex relationship Americans have with alcohol. For a unique alternative perspective on what you were taught in your high school American history class, look no further.
I suggest Drinking In America as a follow up to Bourbon because Cheever’s deep dive into the political history and the many cultural implications of alcohol in America expands on Minnick’s account—itself largely of the history in and around distilleries—to include the nation, its citizens, and our complex national character.
Suggested whiskey pairings: Four Roses Small Batch Select, George Dickel 9 Year Old Hand Selected Single Barrel Tennessee Whiskey, Henry McKenna 10 Year Bottled in Bond Single Barrel, Jefferson’s Reserve Very Old Bourbon, Pikesville Rye.
Like Minnick’s Bourbon, Robin Robinson’s book also features a colorful layout—a bit less pop-art here and more refined. A generous range of photographs and attention to the use fonts, sidebars, and insets, makes the book easy and fun to read. Unlike a number of flashy whiskey books loaded with imagery but slim on content, Robinson draws on his years of experience in whiskey brand management and whiskey education to offer the kind of lasting practical advice and insight into tasting that Greene does in Whisk(e)y Distilled, while also providing concise but thorough historical information about world whiskeys and how they are made. Divided into ten “classes,” the chapters begin with an overview of whiskey history and whiskey making, followed by a thorough tasting class. The book then goes individually through seven global regions of whiskey, articulating what makes each distinct historically and practically. Robinson’s whiskey course culminates with advice on setting up your home bar, covering everything from glassware to tasting sheets to building your whiskey collection, and offering a range of further online and in-print resources. Like Whisk(e)y Distilled, this is a book to return to often.
I suggest The Complete Whiskey Course as a fourth book because, now with some breadth of American whiskey history under your belt, it’s a great time to revisit the practical nuts and bolts of tasting whiskeys—this time with the history and practices of world whiskeys stirred in the mix.
Suggested whiskey pairings: Lagavulin 8 Year Single Malt Scotch, Nikka Straight From The Barrel Japanese Whisky, Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon, Whistle Pig 10-Year Rye (single barrel store pick if possible), Green Spot Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey.
Philosophers Fritz Allhoff and Marcus P. Adams have assembled twenty ruminations by a range of whiskey writers, academics, and philosophers. The essays are grouped under five umbrellas: history and culture, beauty and experience, metaphysics and epistemology, ethics, and the role of place and region. Writers are as likely to reference Hegel or Heisenberg as they are Hakushu or hangovers. Some of the writing is decidedly academic and a bit difficult to follow, especially if one takes up the editors’ suggestion to enjoy a dram while you read! But the majority of the essays are thought-provoking, good humored, sincerely curious explorations of their subject—be it questions of authenticity, the psychology of whiskey selection, whiskey and the American history of feminism, whiskey-making methodologies as cultural practices, the zen of sipping, whiskey and identity… The list goes on. The format and range of subjects make it easy to jump around the book according to one’s inclination. Personally, I was thrilled to come across this creative book, since the intersection of whiskey and culture was the inciting impulse for The Right Spirit blog. I’m a big fan of those sprawling late-night conversations over a few too many drams, in which you and your friends solve the world’s problems and nobody is the wiser, if only because the next morning nobody can remember! And sometimes we actually do swim down through our pours to a deeper understanding of something or someone. However the conversation ends up going, Whiskey & Philosophy makes great fuel for burning the midnight oil.
I saved this book for last because its eclectic range of provocative essays are easier to appreciate and relate to once one has been tasting whiskeys for some time and accumulated a broad knowledge of the whiskey world. That context of practical experience gives the book’s various questions, theories, and musings greater relevance and resonance.
Suggested whiskey pairings: Booker’s Bourbon, Caol Ila 12 Year Single Malt Scotch, Ichiro’s Malt Chichibu White Label “Malt & Grain” Japanese Blended Whisky, Redbreast 12 Year Cask Strength Irish Whiskey, Willett Family Estate 4 Year Cask Strength Kentucky Rye.